Divers, underwater photographers and videographers, and shark researchers have for several years now enjoyed the thrill of diving with 20-25 bull sharks on the reefs off Playa del Carmen from November to February each year. Many of the Playa bull sharks are female, several have been pregnant and some have even birthed their pups while in the area. This is currently the only known bull shark aggregation along Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
Last week, a local fisherman from Puerto Morelos, a town about a half hour north of Playa del Carmen, killed nine of the bull sharks. Seven were pregnant females and a total of 50 pups were pulled from their bellies. Shark fishing is not illegal in Mexico, however, over the past 5 years area dive shops have established a tourism market around the bull shark season and the diving community has encouraged fishermen to leave the sharks alone.
Not only is this a tragic blow to the local bull shark population, but it’s also a significant economic loss to Playa del Carmen. There are 10 shops advertising bull shark dives and they charge an average of $120 per diver. It’s been estimated that about 30 divers a day participate and the season is approximately 150 days long. Without the bull sharks, area dive shops could to lose about $540,000 this year. Those involved in shark tourism in Playa estimated that approximately 500 jobs have been created in the last 5 years from the growing popularity of the dives, as well as boats and guides involved in research activity. In addition, local hotels, restaurants and other tourist services and businesses will also feel the financial loss if the divers don’t come.
The fisherman sold his catch for $100-200 per shark. Whomever he sold them to will take them to a larger market, like Merida or Cancun, and earn at least double from an exporter who will buy them for the fins, oil and cartilage. The meat would likely be eaten locally. Believe it of not, shark meat does occasionally appear on the buffet of area resorts and local fisherman down the coast have proudly posed for tourists with their young shark catches on the beach.
The local diving community have banned together to form the Blue Heart Society with a mission to work for the protection of the reefs, sharks and other marine life, possibly with the creation of a Marine Park. In specific response to the shark killings, they’ve also started a petition “calling for the protection of these and other species, undertaking an analysis of the commercial value for tourism, and finding the tools to regulate it in the Mexican Caribbean coast.”
When the local media publicized what had happened and named the culprit, the fisherman came into local dive shops in Playa del Carmen and apologized to the owner. Hopefully public pressure will also have an effect with local authorities and result in a ban on shark fishing.
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